Venezuela’s spectacular collapse evokes memories of other such socialist nightmares. Blessed with fantastic oil wealth, Venezuela was once the region’s richest nation. But after years of leftist policies culminating in Cuban-style socialism, the oil-rich yet impoverished South American nation is now in the throes of a humanitarian crisis – near famine conditions and a hemorrhage of poor refugees pouring into neighboring countries. Venezuela’s collapse is like other socialist nightmares in another respect: corruption.
Many top officials and friends of the regime have gotten filthy rich through corruption. This is nothing new, to be sure. Like other Third World petrostates, Venezuela has long been a kleptocracy, ranked over the years by corruption watchdog Transparency International as one of the world’s most corrupt nations. Venezuela’s corruption gravy train, however, soared to epic levels under what the late President Hugo Chávez and successor Nicolás Maduro called “twenty-first-century socialism.” Corrupt officials and insiders got rich in a variety of ways: kick-back schemes and bribes involving state industries; sleazy currency-exchange deals and money laundering; and other nefarious deals – from outright theft of state assets to drug trafficking. Corruption flourished due to a dark side of human nature: absolute power corrupts absolutely. Venezuela’s already fragile democracy was destroyed.
Corrupt socialists in U.S.
It’s no fun living in a failed state, not even for Venezuela’s filthy rich socialists. So many have relocated with their looted wealth to first-world getaways. The U.S. is a favorite destination, with Florida in particular being a popular haven for ex-officials and insiders. Amusingly, they made a beeline to the U.S. despite Chávez and Maduro’s blustering anti-Americanism and praise for communist Cuba. They weren’t stupid. In the end, they believed that America – with its rule of law, property rights, and high quality of life – was the place to be.
One of these wealthy socialists is Alejandro Andrade, a former bodyguard for Hugo Chávez who rose to become Venezuela’s national treasurer. The 53-year-old Andrade now lives on a fabulous estate in Wellington, Florida, an exclusive community just west of West Palm Beach, which Money Magazine once ranked as one of America’s 100 best places to live.
In recent articles about Andrade’s lavish lifestyle, the Palm Beach Post and Miami Herald reported that Andrade has for at least six years occupied a palatial 9,000-square-foot house with five bedrooms, marble floors, and a swimming pool. The house was purchased for $4.75 million through a shell company, the Palm Beach Post reported, and sits on a six-acre estate in a gated community in the heart of “horse country” – a perfect location for Andrade who keeps some 60 horses in a large barn. Their names include Bon Jovi and Armani Z. His son Emanuel Andrade, an Olympic equestrian, hangs out with the rich and famous, including American model Kendall Jenner and Kris Jenner, the matriarch of the Kardashian clan, the Palm Beach Post reported.
Andrade’s lavish lifestyle and unexplained wealth has provoked protests from middle-class Venezuelan expatriates living in Florida. They sometimes gather near his estate to draw attention to a man whom they blame for helping to destroy their country.
None of this has escaped the attention of the Trump administration, which is reportedly moving against Andrade and other such corrupt Venezuelan expatriates. In South Florida, Federal authorities “are building a massive money laundering case against Andrade and other former Venezuelan officials,” according to the Miami Herald, citing unnamed sources in Miami and former government officials from Venezuela. “Andrade and several other associates in Venezuela’s government, banking and business sectors are suspected of enriching themselves by selling billions of dollars in bonds, capitalizing on fluctuating exchange rates and hiding their profits in Swiss bank accounts and U.S. investments,” the paper reported.
“I’m not surprised,” Otto Juan Reich, a former senior official in the administrations of President Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush, told The Palm Beach Post. “I know that he has been followed very closely by U.S. law enforcement for the last few years.”
Reich, who was U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 1986 to 1989, added that while Andrade “is reported to be one of the wealthiest of Chávez’s business partners, he is far from the only one. South Florida is crawling with Venezuelan boligarchs.” (_Boligarch_ is a term invented by Venezuelans to describe Hugo Chávez’s filthy rich cronies and government insiders. It’s a portmantu of the surname of Venezuela’s independence hero Simón Bolívar, Hugo Chávez hero, and the word “oligarch.” “ Bolívar” also is the name of Venezuela’s currency.)
Recently, the Trump administration imposed financial sanctions on a number of top Venezuelan officials, including Venezuela’s vice president Tareck El Aissami who is accused of being a drug kingpin. His assets include upscale properties in Miami and a U.S.-registered corporate jet. It’s ironic: Venezuela’s America-hating socialists are fond of their U.S. properties. The Trump administration is thus hitting them where it hurts – freezing financial assets subject to U.S. jurisdiction and making it illegal for U.S. citizens to transact business with them.
In all, recent sanctions targeted 13 current or former senior officials of Venezuela’s government. One aim was to punish officials for President Maduro’s sham referendum establishing a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution. Maduro, a bus driver-turned politician, must have made his Cuban handlers proud with this power grab.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, “Venezuelan Government corruption is associated heavily – but by no means exclusively – with two government entities. The first of these is Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), from which approximately $11 billion went missing between 2004 and 2014, according to news accounts of a report by a Venezuelan congressional commission. Another significant engine of corruption in Venezuela involves the black market surrounding the official exchange rate regime set by the National Center for Foreign Commerce (Centro Nacional de Comercio Exterior, or CENCOEX).”
And in another anti-corruption effort, officials from the U.S. and 15 nations in Europe and Latin American joined forces in April to find and seize ill-gotten proceeds from corrupt Venezuelan officials, ex-officials, and insiders, reported the Associated Press. “Concrete actions are necessary to restrict the ability of corrupt Venezuelan officials and their support networks from abusing the international financial system,” said U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who was involved in the decision on the sidelines of the International Monetary Fund’s spring gathering in Washington, D.C. The goal is to return stolen proceeds to Venezuela in a post-Maduro government committed to rebuilding Venezuela, according to officials attending the meeting.
It’s an old story. In socialist regimes – from Soviet Russia and China to Cuba and North Korea – ruling elites and insiders live very well while ordinary people face daily deprivations and even starve. In Venezuela, the clock is now ticking for the Maduro regime as the Trump administration targets rich socialists who helped destroy their own country.
David Paulin, an Austin, TX-based freelance journalist, covered Hugo Chávez’s rise to power while based in Caracas as a foreign correspondent. He also reported from the Caribbean while based in Kingston, Jamaica.